The Knesset was right to suspend three Arab lawmakers this week — they are guilty of a sickening act of contempt for the public they are meant to serve.
As the parents of victims from the current wave of violence are still reciting Kaddish, as children are still wailing for their murdered mothers, as spouses are choosing wording for gravestones, politicians from the third largest party in the Knesset saw fit to meet with the families of terrorists.
They sat down with several families of people whose loved ones attacked or tried to attack Israelis, and as they would have anticipated, were killed in the process. One was the family of a man who, together with an accomplice, carried out a Jerusalem attack in October that killed three Jews — including the heroic American-Israeli teacher Richard Lakin.
The lawmakers, Haneen Zoabi, Basel Ghattas and Jamal Zahalka, observed a minute’s silence with the families of the fallen terrorists, and their political movement Balad — part of the United List Knesset faction — called the terrorists “martyrs” on its Facebook page.
If all this isn’t bad enough, they have been trying to spin the angry reaction of Israelis and fellow Israeli politicians as incitement against them. They are claiming persecution after the decision on Monday night to ban them from all Knesset activity, except voting, for two to four months.
Playing the victim card here simply doesn’t work. These politicians serve in the parliament of a country whose citizens (including its Arab citizens) are targeted by terrorism, and meeting with the families of perpetrators at this time is entirely unacceptable. It is akin, in the eyes of many Israelis, to dancing on the graves of the deceased.
There have been attempts to justify what they did, to say that the minute’s silence shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of the terror acts, or that their main focus wasn’t political but humanitarian, as they are trying to help expedite the return of the terrorists’ bodies by Israel. None of this holds water. They showed sympathy and even admiration for terrorists and identified with their families. They touched the rawest of nerves of the people they are meant to serve and in doing so showed disdain towards almost eight million people. After all, Knesset members are not elected to serve only those who vote for them, but to serve the general public and the Jewish public is unanimously outraged. What is more, they have let down their own voters.
How so? Because this isn’t what their voters elected them for. In a major 2013 study of Israeli Arabs, some 76 percent said that their leaders should deal more with settling daily problems and less with Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians. Many Arab voters are embarrassed by the latest antics.
As I survey this sorry situation, I think back to the opportunity that Arab politicians had after last year’s general election and how they seem to have so sadly let it slip through their fingers.
It was a triumph for Arab parties to unite as one federation instead of running separately, and for this federation, the Joint List, to place itself as the third biggest party in the Knesset. I wrote at the time that its politicians had a rare chance to capitalize on this power to act constructively, to tackle the problems faced by their voters, and to do so as part of the system rather than by raging against the system.
I pointed out the very real difficulties facing Arabs in Israel, including poverty, the lack of infrastructure in neighborhoods and a problem highlighted by the likes of the Bank of Israel, namely discrimination in employment opportunities. It was clear that finding solutions would be good for Israel, and ramping up Arab-Jewish tensions would be bad for everyone. But, I concluded, “It remains to be seen whether the relevant people will have the resolve and good sense to seize on this.”
Perhaps there are some people in the Joint List faction who would like to. The Joint List leader, Ayman Odeh, gave an impressive speech at a New York conference two months ago, and last month David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, published an optimistically titled article about him, “Seeds of Peace.” Odeh told Remnick that he has “no question that peaceful struggle is the way.”
However, when it came down to it this week, Odeh didn’t show the kind of resolve and principle that one would expect from him — especially if you finished reading Remnick’s 6,500-word article. The Joint List didn’t distance itself from the members who met with the terrorists’ families; it didn’t condemn their actions and present them as party rogues. Instead, the Joint List toed the line of its constituent movement Balad and referred to the terrorists as “martyrs.”
To think what this historic Arab mega-party could have achieved.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.